IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Thursday, October 22, 2708
I can dress myself, by God. Nishka points to a stall at the end. “Girl’s clothes are in there,” she says. “That’s where we change.” So I make my own progress to it, hoping that nobody notices how I steady myself against the wood along the way.
(“Coveralls are over there,” the goat-herd says. “And the pitchforks right beside them. You boys know what to do?”
“Two of us do,” Randy says, and winks at me. “Just like old times, eh?” I remember Alonzo Valley and smile back.
“And I can pick it up from them,” Don adds, blushing a little.
Randy finds his size right away, and Don a bit later. I have a longer search. And memories of my rookie mission rise up like the acrid steam of the goat manure, for I’d had a hard time finding a coverall that fit there, too…)
I dig out the mottled blue and white shirt and skirt that Deni Abojan tiedyed for me to help me blend into sky. She couldn’t resist embroidering birds in flight here and there, but nothing that would show to the Earthbound. I will myself to tune out the pounding headache, for I have a report-and-strategy session to attend.
(I will my body to work without me, digging into the noisome straw and pitching it into the wagon, over and over, no need for higher consciousness here. Because the memory feels important…)
I settle onto the barn’s fresh straw with the eldest of my troop, while nearby younger rebels muck out a goat-pen. The smell should upset my uneasy stomach, but instead it reminds me so achingly of that year in Alonzo Valley that I must work to keep the memory from bringing tears to my eyes.
(I still felt raw.) I still feel hazy. ( But why would Archives have sent me on my rookie mission so soon after the Mindchange, if she didn't need this in me? With my training unfinished, officially at least, on top of everything else?) But they must have confidence in me, or they wouldn’t have invited me to join in.
(The palace seemed no place for my rawness...and yet it did, too. Antiques, everywhere antiques, older than a human presence on Novatierre, shining with generations of care, but shabby underneath the varnish, abraded by the years.)
I stare at a row of worn farm tools leaning against the stall wall across from me. Weather-grayed handles and dark old metal. When I focus my eyes I can see the deep cracks along the grain of the wood. Then I realize that people have already begin to talk. I try to follow along.
(I entered the designated room. Not much to look at here, a dusty old piano in it, some rolled up carpets, and a few spindly chairs, some stacked upside down on others. Sheer white curtains draped the windows and heavy ones of velvet crimson muffled the walls, light streaming in on them. You could see the ghosts of furniture past, shadows on the sun-bleached fabric, with nothing left to cast them. A room to ignore, when much more comfortable ones existed nearby. In passing, I recall, I touched a few piano-keys, where the immoral ivory bowed up from the wood. Out of tune.
I didn't see anyone there. I almost turned to leave, when I saw a sort of appendix off the main room, barely glimpsed through curtains.
No windows in there. Darker velvet. Hawk-faced old Crespus Inglorius waited at the far end, there where the shadows hung like musty old drapes of unlight. He stood before me wordlessly, next to a wall as though something hung on it besides the rich but moth-bit cloth. The tiles below him, dark and polished, reflected that curtain like blood got into the stone. And suddenly my oraclism gave a pang—this meant more than simile.)
“…can’t get out of this revolution without bloodshed, mate. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You know what we are, every last one of us in this barn.”
(We read each other. He knew what I was, and I knew what he was—two oracles, meeting. He’d studied in Til Institute, in his youth long ago, and spoke fluent tilianach. He had been to the Cave of Changes.
Cave! Why did that word tingle in me so? I had no way of guessing, at the time.)
“…Smuggler’s Cave, I suspect, will matter a whole lot more in the future than anyone has reckoned on so far. Cyran’s negotiations…”
“Don’t say any more,” Bijal interrupts. “That’s not for us to speculate on. Now, the map that I’m about to show you…”
(“What I am about to show you, Jake, may well be the single most important treasure-trove in all of Novatierre.” And he parted the curtain to reveal a door.
While he fiddled with a rattling ring of keys, I wondered just how many other secret doors, drawers, and cubbies laced his palace? For he decorated with curtains everywhere. But something told me that only this one really mattered.)
“…only our part really matters, to us. Now who here knows this territory best, over here, past the…”
(He finally got the door open, and we stepped into a dark little alcove, with shelves and benches. One door—hermetically sealed—faced us, and another stood to the right, opposite the shelves.
“Change your clothes,” he said gruffly. “Shower off, first. Don't bother drying—the water will help cool you later.” And he stripped on the spot. Folds in the old skin showed that he used to weigh a lot more. Surgical scars layered over one another.
dying,” I blurted.
“…tell us something not obvious?” the young woman drawls.
I find myself staring at the scar not hidden by her eye patch, across the eyebrow on one side of the patch, down to the outside cheek on the other.
“Give him a break, Chianti. Sometimes we need to repeat what we know, so we can fit it in with…”
(As I started to comply, his face softened. “It's not your fault, I understand. You've so recently been through...I'm not supposed to know, exactly. But...poor boy!” I felt him eye me up and down, one sock half-off in his hand; most people do that when they first see me naked, daunted by all the muscle, but that's not my fault. I have to keep in shape to ground myself, or the visions would drive me mad. But he didn't look daunted, only full of pity. And that’s when I realized that he could see the traces of old scars of my own, hidden from most people by the best plastic surgery Til could afford. And we both knew what makes oracles. “And you're no more happy about what I see in you than I in what you see in me. My apologies, Jake.”
I shrugged. “Occupational hazard. Which door leads to the showers?”
one.” He pointed to the right. “You will also find facilities of a more, ah,
delicate nature in there, as well as drinking fountains. Empty your bladder utterly, and then drink as
much water as you can hold. Don't mind
the mineral tang—you will need to maintain your electrolytes.” I complied, a little self-consciously, and
then entered the shower.
“Please excuse the chill,” said Mr. Inglorius, dryly. “You will appreciate it later.”)
“Hold on. Deirdre’s shivering. Where’s her blanket?” Warm, horsey wool settles over my shoulders, feeling wonderful.
(The blue garments felt papery, and they covered the whole body, with gloves. They stuck to my wet skin, and wherever they puffed out from the body dry, they rattled as I shivered. White bags went over our shoes, and white papery nets confined our hair. He handed me a respirator, and put one on, himself.
“The paintings are exceptionally fragile,” he explained. “They have already suffered enormous damage from some forty-thousand years of human breath, not to mention acidic particles of human sweat in the air.” Forty thousand? “And believe me, you will sweat.” He pulled at his own blue coverall. “I had this fabric designed especially for this purpose. It evaporates moisture while filtering it. The cost—unimaginable!” He opened the air-lock, to reveal a dark staircase. “Many might think the money better spent elsewhere. But you will understand, once you've seen.”)
“…decide how to make the best of what money we’ve…”
(He clipped on a will-o-watt, and handed another to me. By their glow we spiraled down and down his staircase, further than his basement, further than the wine-cellar beneath it.
“In any case, we never lack for money. I think good luck comes with the tremendous burden.” Indeed, the polished wood all around us, the sheer understated workmanship of it, attested to immense prosperity. The Inglorius family always seemed to know the right thing to invest in at exactly the right time. And yet they also managed to remain practically unknown.)
“…needs to keep his hand in this unknown…”
(We came to another air-lock, opening with a whoosh. We left behind the wood and tiles to enter that which lies beneath the work of human hands, save for the stairs and walls and roof carved roughly from the living rock. So down and down we went, the air growing warm, then hot, then stifling.)
I shrug off the blanket, suddenly steaming in it. Tanjin reaches his good hand to feel my sweating cheek.
(And then the stone walls opened up, into natural caverns, and we spiraled down and down the most enormous rock pillar that I had ever seen, our lights coruscating off, oh God, so much beauty! Ah, if only Randy had been there to see this forest of stalagtites and stalagmites, the rainbow of crystal formations everywhere!)
“..have chosen a spot to leave the…”
“But wouldn’t that shame the very family we need to keep on our side?”
I have no idea what she’s talking about. I tug at my braid, trying to wake myself up from my haze, but I only seem to drift in deeper and deeper.
(Down we go, deeper and deeper into the heat and splendor. I have never seen such a vast collection of crystals in my life!)
“…until they found out about the bombs…”
(“It was nothing short of desecration, really. He hacked them from the rock. Carefully, but a few got damaged. Some he didn't get to in time and the bombs took care of them. As to those left unscathed by war, who would be left on Earth to see them? And who, at that point, could stop him?”)
“…and then who could stop us?”
(Calcite. Calcite formations made up the pillar down which we descended, white streaked in tints of rose, blue, and green, some black, flashes of orange here and there. Yet my scalp prickled to realize that not every crystal shows me four-sided facets.
“Yet he knew, Jake. Yes, he knew. Men and women chose those specific caves, for those precise paintings, for excellent reasons. And ages of faith, or wonder, or even simple aesthetic awe, had cemented into the miles of stone some powerful gregor-forces, geni loci as it were. Or a single genus loci—for something potent interlaced them all, throughout the ancient planet.”
I could feel it. The life in the other crystals, the ones with eight sides, found only on Novatierre.
“My ancestor had to do it, you see. He had to sin to save anything at all, but the guilt haunted him to his death.” And it all sounded disturbingly familiar—especially then. But now, too. Somehow now, too.)
Out of the blue, guilt wells up in me over everything I’ve done in this war, though I don’t know why it hits me right now, I bite my lip, holding back a sort of floating anxiety attack, trying to listen to the meeting. Didn’t I read that concussions sometimes can trigger awful feelings for no good reason?
(“He ripped them from the most ancient temples on earth, wrenched from a sanctity so thick that the very act tore at last the heart of Earth herself.” Wryly he added, “Which is why Manuel gave the family our embarrassing surname. So that we would tend this treasure with humility and reverence, never taking pride in its ownership. So that we would never forget.”
Suddenly he pivoted on the step and stared up at me. “And you know better than anybody what that means, don't you? Young as you are, green as you are, you are the exact right oracle for this job.”)
“…right where we need her.
“But can we trust…”
My head aches with the effort to try and follow along. No, it just plain aches, whether I make the effort or not. Sometimes the children look at me, as if they expect me to speak, but I haven’t the foggiest notion of what they need me to say. And that hurts worst of all.
(We had nothing more to say until we reached the bottom at last. A few steps more, and we stood at the mouth of another cavern. “In there, Jake.”
Cave paintings. Rock paintings. The will-o-watt glow illuminated them just enough, like ancient torches must have done, flickering with our breaths and movements to bring the images to life. The most ancient art that human beings had ever made on Earth, imbedded now into the rock of Novatierre, and then further bound into place by the ongoing growth of mineral deposits around the edges, over the course of centuries. Stick-figures of men hunted extinct animals on long-gone plains, or changed into animals, themselves. They ran, swam, gesticulated, they stalked or crouched. Stylized women populated the rock-faces too, plump or downright fat, standing or sitting or half-reclined, awaiting worship. Spirals, asterisks, and other symbols mingled with reverse-stencil hand-prints, some of which record for all ages the sacrifice of fingers long since moldered into dirt. Great beasts ran or flew or slithered, many without any relation to human beings at all. The stone colors changed, step by step, the styles varied, but it all added up to something heart-stopping.
And yes, I could feel their interconnection. And their desecration. Their gratitude and rage.
“He gathered them from every continent and subcontinent inhabitable by humankind. The snakes of Australia, the bison of Europe, Mesopotamian dragons, Asian tortoises, African hippopotomi, deer from north America and llamas of the south. Horses in galloping herds, from the days before anybody ever managed to tame a steed. Hummingbirds that seem to fly through stone. It's all here, as much as he could get his hands on.”)
“…get our hands on some ammunition while we…”
“Oh, my skirt-pockets are crammed full of the stuff. It’s all that lead, you know, slamming into my legs that throws me off…” and I stop at all the people staring at me. “No, sorry. That happened a long, long time ago, didn’t it? Like the paintings. Like, uh…never mind.” And still they stare, before going on.
But I can’t follow. What was I thinking about? Humming birds? Dragons? Hippopotami?